An Accelerator for Jewish Placemaking

Concepts from social and emotional learning influence every aspect of Beverly Socher-Lerner’s work, including how she approaches family education. Creating a totally innovative approach to Jewish afterschool, she focused on meeting the needs of parents and children and building structures and routines that allow for self-reflection, meaning-making, and community-building.

Beverly Socher-Lerner started Makom Community, a Jewish enrichment center that creates family-centered Jewish experiences in Philadelphia, out of a deep commitment to social and emotional learning and the value of helping children identify and express their needs through the lens of Jewish wisdom.

“I grew up with a sense that Jewish communal spaces were where kids’ voices were heard,” she said. “At Makom Community, we empower parents to build a Jewish life that is meaningful for their family.”

Growing up in Marietta, GA in a Reform congregation that was very youth-centered, by the time Socher-Lerner graduated high school, she had been on her synagogue board and held leadership positions in NFTY. “This set a very high bar for feeling like my voice mattered.”

During college at the University of Maryland, she ran a small rural synagogue school which was a contrast to the huge Jewish population on campus. Building on her own educational experiences at Camp Coleman and in her synagogue, she created a structure of multi-modal learning. “Every child in the school lived at least 45 minutes away from where the school met—we had to create a model that met their needs,” she said. “The entire content of the school, which met at temporary locations, fit in the trunk of my car.”

Photo Credit: Rachel Utain-Evans

After graduation Socher-Lerner was a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, and went on to receive her MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania, where her mentor was Rabbi Dr. Karen G. Reiss Medwed, a graduate of List College and JTS Rabbinical School and former Davidson adjunct faculty member. Socher-Lerner directed congregational schools in Maryland and New Jersey and taught at Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Settling down in Philadelphia, Socher-Lerner saw unmet needs in Jewish education. “There are few synagogues downtown, and there are lots of working parents who need afterschool coverage for their kids and don’t want to give up a weekend for typical congregational school,” said Socher-Lerner. “I started to have coffee and talk with people about a new model.”

“Immersive, playful, child-led—these were the priorities I kept hearing from parents and others interested in Jewish education,” said Socher-Lerner.

The new model Socher-Lerner created is called Jewish Placemaking. It is a pedagogy with three pillars: placemaking, non-violent communication, and studying Jewish text. Transforming the urban planning concept of placemaking, Jewish Placemaking brings together stakeholders to articulate their needs and to see how many can be met at one time through engagement with Jewish texts.

“Texts can help us listen, know each other, and think with empathy,” said Socher-Lerner. “How can a text help me get to who I want to be? And how can I do that in this space we are building together?” asked Socher-Lerner. “That learning from text is applied to the physical space of communal life and the relational space between people.”

Socher-Lerner’s model integrates the practice of non-violent communication, the idea that if two people are in conflict, that conflict is about unmet needs. “Our goal is to figure out what those needs are in order to get to peaceful community-building,” said Socher-Lerner.

Photo Credit: Rachel Utain-Evans

These elements of Makom Community’s pedagogy inform programming, now taking place at two sites that are walkable from six or seven neighborhood schools each, one in Center City and one in South Philadelphia. Children in PreK to grade eight attend on a flexible schedule up to five days/week from 3-6 pm. Makom Community also offers “school’s out camp” programming during vacation time. Socher-Lerner estimates that 70% of the families are not connected to a synagogue. On Fridays, most families stay after pickup for family-centered Shabbat services.

Routines at Makom Community blend the pedagogical approach. Each afternoon begins with an opening text study over snack time. “It is a moment for self-reflection, engagement, and making meaning,” said Socher-Lerner, “while meeting the needs of children after a busy day of school.”

Being an educator at Makom Community means contributing to the new model in a constructive way. “Every educator calls at least three families each week to share something wise, wonderful or kind that the child did that week,” said Socher-Lerner.

For Socher-Lerner, innovation in Jewish education depends on professionals responding to the needs of families today. “If we want to change the face of Jewish education, we do that not by opening more sites but by training education directors and teachers.”

In the summer of 2020, as the first year of remote learning came to a close, the Covenant Foundation funded “Learning from Jewish Afterschool,” a three-day zoom conference attended by professionals from across North America. It was the first time that Socher-Lerner had the chance to teach about Jewish place-making, with coaching sessions afterwards to a small number of educators.

That experience led to the creation of the Jewish Placemaking Accelerator which applies Socher-Lerner’s model in a cohort approach. The Accelerator, funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, engages teams of education director, rabbi, and up to three educators from one institution in a summer intensive, monthly seminars, and coaching. “We need to work in teams,” said Socher-Lerner, “because the changes we are envisioning are not limited to what happens in an individual congregational classroom.”

“The Accelerator is a kind of laboratory for Jewish Placemaking,” said Socher-Lerner. “We can create tools such as annotated lesson planning guides for teachers and guidelines for classroom observation and reflection for education directors.” The real obstacles have to do with finding teachers with bandwidth for additional engagement.

Most of the educators in the Accelerator, a self-selecting pool open to what Socher-Lerner calls “experimentation and play” work part-time in their schools with other draws on their time. “What would it take to build toward a more full-time congregational educator role?” Socher-Lerner asked. “In the aftermath of so much ‘shut-down,’ we immediately need teachers who can imagine ‘what could be’ for families looking to be connected.”

The teams in the Accelerator are engaged in their own social and emotional learning experience at the same time as they are designing and delivering meaning-based educational settings. “We are modeling what we want them to accomplish, creating space and time to reflect on their own experience, revealing the structure, and then empowering the teams to practice what they are learning,” said Socher-Lerner. “Experience—reflect—practice—reflect again,” is our approach.

Social and emotional learning principles cut through every aspect of how Socher-Lerner sees herself as an educator. “Parents, educators, children—everyone involved in Makom Community sees themselves as builders,” she said. “Our goal is not ‘sales’ in terms of enrollment but authentic connection to individual identity and dedication to a joyful and meaningful community.”